Originally published in McKinney Magazine

August, 2013


Quick – what’s the best way to know you’ve had a good workout?
A. You’re breathing hard
B. Your muscles ache
082613misd-education1C. You got up twice during American Idol
D. Your heart-rate falls within a scientifically-derived healthy range for your age, weight, height and sex

D, of course, is the answer. (If you answered C, please see your doctor. Only half-kidding.)

This knowledge — and new techniques — are now being imparted to McKinney Independent School District (MISD) students through a state-approved program that uses heart-rate monitors and computer software to determine and track optimal benefit exercise.

It’s called the Spirit System, by Interactive Health Technologies (IHT) of Austin and it’s spreading quickly across the country. MISD introduced it as a PE pilot program last year at two schools, Dowell Middle School and McKinney High. Plans call for expanding the program this fall with grant assistance.

“It’s a course that provides a complete program for cardiovascular fitness and overall well-being,” says Karin Klemm, MISD’s Health and PE Coordinator. “As an administrator I can look and see, for each of those classes, if each one of those kids is reaching their goal.”

Klemm says, eventually, MISD would like to make the Spirit System available in all secondary schools.


The high-tech tool works like this:

Students’ pertinent data — plus “fitness level,” derived in part by Body-Mass Index — are stored in web-based software.

A heart-rate monitor is assigned to each student, which they use all year. Wraparound straps are provided to hold monitors snuggly in place, as proper placement — center of the chest near the base of the sternum — is critical for accurate readings.

Before class, teachers choose the day’s exercise routine from an extensive list provided by IHT’s website — including volleyball skills, hockey, the mile-run and Frisbee; duration of exercise is entered and from that, goals for time-spent in heart-rate ranges are computed and shown in color bar-graphs — blue for “light” exercise, yellow for “moderate” and red for “vigorous”; (typically, red is where maintaining a conversation is difficult.)

Students file by and swipe their monitors on a reader to see their individual goals for the day; for example, 21 minutes in yellow may be expected and nine in the blue. For more strenuous routines, perhaps 12 minutes in the red will show.

After the workout, students again swipe their monitors for an immediate report comparing their heart-rate history to the goals; color bar-graphs, line-graphs are also displayed; emails go out automatically to the student and are also available to his/her parents and administrators.

Hitting yellow or red during light exercise could indicate a serious health problem.Coach Jennifer Hodnett, who ran McKinney High’s program last year, recalls a girl whose heart appeared to be working hard while just walking. Hodnett referred her to the school nurse and later learned she was borderline diabetic. Blood pressure problems have been uncovered similarly, she says. Hodnett coaches basketball and track at MHS and also teaches Health and Special Education PE.

“I think the best part about this program,” she says, “is once you explain it to kids, ‘Here’s the level at which you need to work and these are the benefits of you working out,’ I think they get it.”

“Now do all kids get excited about it? No. But if we can get a few kids to kind of start paying attention, then we’re ahead of the game.

Parents impressed

Coach Juli Krepps administered the program at Dowell last year. Krepps is Girls’ Athletic Coordinator and coaches volleyball, basketball and track. (Her Spirit System class was all female. McKinney High’s was coed.)

“I’ve really enjoyed using the system,” she says, adding that parents frequently contacted her last year, expressing their appreciation.“One girl lost 10 pounds, so her mom was emailing me that.” Parents also told Krepps they were walking together more as a family and eating better.

“I think that the feedback has been really positive from both and the parents,” she says.

“It’s showing them if you’re not within a certain range, you’re not really benefitting yourself.” Krepps adds the monitors can also let students know if they’re over-doing it.

The high-tech immediate feedback is what kids seem to like most. Sydney Wallner, 12, says, “It’s really easy if you just keep track of it. And it’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be.”

She says she looks forward to checking her results after each workout and finding out “your hard work pays off.”

Hannah Hill, 13, calls the mile run “one of the more intense activities.”

“It’s really cool to think that you’re actually getting your heart-rate , because I’ve never really thought of that.”

A journal, with information on nutrition and stress, also comes with the class.

Founder Knows Fitness

IHT founder and president, Jen Ohlson, developed the Spirit System beginning in 2009. Ohlson was a sports reporter for WFAATV in Dallas from 1999 to 2002 and later in Austin. After authoring the award-winning “Every Town Needs A Trail,” a tribute to Austin’s Town Lake hike-and-bike trail, and producing a documentary on childhood obesity, Ohlson focused on doing something new and significant for student health.

“I just started to think about how we could create the story of each individual and make every single student matter,” she says, “and connect to them in the language they speak.”

Ohlson, a veteran of 35 marathons and three Ironman triathlons, calls the resulting program, “a daily connection to kids, where they’re becoming the owners of their own health.”

In 2009, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 891 which mandated at least “moderate” physical activity for no less than 50 percent of PE class time. “We basically became the measurement tool for Senate Bill 891,” Ohlson says.

IHT calls its accompanying class curriculum PE3 — PE for mind, body and spirit.

The Texas Education Agency made PE3 an official statewide elective course in the spring of 2011, and the program made its debut in schools a year later. This fall, the class will have a presence in 71 Texas schools in 12 districts, and 150 schools in 13 states nationally.

The Spirit System software uses data compiled by renowned exercise scientist Sally Edwards. Ohlson says the one class of Dowell Middle School girls burned about 700,000 calories from last September to May. “That’s data that goes to decision makers and legislators,” she says. “We’re validating the quality of PE and the value of it.”

About the author: Rick Atkinson, 57, is a McKinney-based freelance writer and cartoonist. As a former military flight instructor and commercial pilot, his heart-rate has seen it all.